Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Appreciating Greatness

A fascinating Gemorah states that Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah were inspired by the frogs of Mitzrayim to prepare themselves for the ultimate sacrifice – giving up their lives al Kiddush Hashem.

The Gemorah in Pesachim [53b] explains that these three tzaddikim learned a kal vac homer from the actions of the frogs during makas tzefardeiah when the frogs jumped into the Egyptian ovens, thereby bringing about their own deaths.

They pondered the fact that the frogs could have fulfilled their obligation by simply jumping around Mitzrayim and making a general nuisance of themselves. Was it really necessary for them to get themselves roasted to death?

After all, they reasoned, frogs don’t have the commandment of Kiddush Hashem, yet they carried their devotion to this extreme. Certainly, Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah who were obligated to be mekadeish sheim Hashem should be prepared to die al Kiddush Hashem.

I was discussing this subject with my son the other day and we mentioned the classic sefer Nachal Yehuda, written by our great-uncle, where he states that since animals are not baalei bechirah, they do not receive rewards for their acts.

This is puzzling on two accounts: Chananya, Mishael and Azarya seem to assume that an element of free choice was manifest in the manner in which the frogs carried out their shlichus. Otherwise, if they acted purely on instinct, how could the three men have drawn any kind of lesson or inspiration from their acts?

Other instances in the Torah where the pesukim seem to ascribe human attributes and motives to animals come to mind. One example is petter chamor, the mitzvah to redeem the firstborn donkey.

Hakoras Hatov To Donkeys?
Chazal explain: “Why are first- born donkeys set apart from firstborn horses, or firstborn camels? First, because the Torah decreed it so. Second, they helped Am Yisroel during Yetzias Mitzrayim, for there was not a single Jew who did not have 90 Libyan donkeys loaded with the silver and gold of Mitzrayim” (Bechoros 5b).

Chazal are saying that the Torah commanded us to redeem every firstborn donkey for all generations in recognition of the help these animals extended to our forefathers when they were departing Egypt. Stated simply, Chazal are saying that this mitzvah is a way of showing hakaras hatov to the donkeys.

To imprint this lesson on our minds and hearts, the Torah bestows on firstborn donkeys the kedusha of a cheftza shel mitzvah - the sanctity of an object that can be used to perform a mitzvah.
If an animal has no bechirah and thus merits no reward or punishment, why do we reward the donkey for helping us in Mitzrayim?

The dog, too, received a reward for its good behavior toward the Jews who were leaving Egypt. As the posuk says, “Be a holy people to Me. Do not eat flesh torn off by a predator in the field. Cast it to the dogs” (Shemos 22:30).

Rashi, commenting on this posuk, asks: “Why does the Torah specify the dog? To teach that Hashem does not withhold reward from any creature. As it is written, ‘A dog will not even whine to the Jewish People’ (Shemos 11:7) In return, Hashem said, ‘Give [the dog] its reward.’”

The question, once again, is obvious: If an animal has no bechirah and thus earns no reward or punishment, why do we reward the dogs for helping us in Mitzrayim?

A closer examination of the aforementioned Gemorah in Maseches Pesachim may help us understand the lesson derived from the frogs in makkas tzefardeiah, as well as the purpose behind the rewards bestowed on donkeys and dogs. It may also explain Moshe Rabbeinu’s reluctance to strike the water and the earth in the makkos of dam and kinim.

The Anatomy of Greatness
The Gemorah doesn’t actually say that Chananya, Mishael and Azaryah learned a kal vachomer from the tzefardi’im. The Gemorah is discussing Todus ish Romi and asks if he was a gavrah rabbah, a great man, or if he was he a baal egrofin, a tough person who people were scared of.

The Gemorah proves that Todus was a gavrah rabbah because of the way he searched for the source of the mesiras nefesh displayed by Chananya, Mishoel and Azaryah to die al kiddush Hashem. Todus darshened that they derived their sense of obligation from the pesukim that describe the way the tzefardi’im went about their duty in Mitzrayim.

He reasoned that if tzefadi’im which are not commanded to be mekadesh Hashem, carried mesiras nefesh to the hilt, certainly we, who are commanded to be mekadesh Hashem, are obligated to put our lives on the line.

How does the Gemorah deduce from this drasha that Todus was a gavrah rabba? Assuming it is true that animals have no bechirah and thus no reward and punishment, Todus didn’t learn his kal vachomer from the way the frogs actually acted. Rather, he learned his kal vachomer from the way the pesukim describe the frogs’ behavior. From the way the Torah detailed how the frogs swarmed about to every corner of Mitzrayim, Todus determined that there was a lesson to be learned for Jews of all time, including neviim.

A person who examines pesukim so carefully with the aim of deriving inspiration and moral teaching from the stories in the Torah is a gavrah rabba. Someone who can extrapolate such timeless lessons cannot be a baal egrofim.

The salient message is that the precepts commanding us to redeem first born donkeys and to throw the bosor treifah to the dogs are not intended to reward the animals but to teach us a serious lesson.

Moshe Rabbeinu could not turn the Yam Suf into blood during makkas dam, for, as Rashi explains, “The Yam Suf protected Moshe when he was cast into it [as a baby]. For this reason, he did not bring about the makkos of dam or tzefardeiah and they were done instead by Aharon” (Rashi, Shemos 7:19).

Likewise, Moshe Rabbeinu did not strike the ground to bring forth lice in the plague of kinim because, as Rashi explains, the dirt “protected him when he killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand” (Rashi, Shemos 8:12).

The Art of Gratitude
Hakoras hatov is a preamble to Torah. We treat donkeys and dogs differently not to reward them for what they did in Mitzrayim, but to train ourselves to acknowledge those who did us favors and express appreciation for those acts of kindness.

The dogs don’t know the difference; neither do the donkeys. The ground wouldn’t have any way of knowing that Moshe struck it, and neither would the Yam Suf. The point is that Moshe himself knew. Striking something to which you are indebted demonstrates ingratitude. Therefore, we treat these inanimate objects with deference.

Chazal say, “Ro’asah shifcha al hayom mah shelo ra’ah Yecheskel ben Boozi...”

The maidservants at Kriyas Yam Suf merited to see the greatest visions of G-d’s wonders, even greater than those of the neviim. How can that be?

In order to be a makir tov, you have to be makir tov. In order to recognize greatness in this world, you need to be a person who is appreciative of the goodness that is out there. You need to be the type of person who appreciates all the good that is in the world. In order to qualify as a nobler kind of person who can perceive the good, you have to first train yourself to express gratitude for the good you have received.

The humblest servants at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim had absorbed the lesson taught by Moshe Rabbeinu when he couldn’t hurt the inanimate objects that had protected him in his time of need. They had learned that although dirt and water have no feelings or bechirah, we still must show appreciation for the benefits we received from them. And we must draw a lesson from them when warranted.

People who are makir tov to water and sand can learn lessons from frogs as well. Such people are anoshim gedolim, great people. The shifachos al hayom had been so deeply inculcated with lessons from Moshe and his ethical conduct that by the time of Kriyas Yam Suf, they were able to see the gadlus Haboreh in a way never repeated by man.

The ultimate hakoras hatov is to appreciate everything that Hakadosh Boruch Hu placed in this world for our benefit. The epitome of hakoras hatov is to recognize the chassodim that are bestowed upon us by G-d, moment by moment, every day of our lives.

But there is more. The Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer (Perek 7) states, “Why does the Torah punish people who are ungrateful with such severity? Because ingratitude at its core implies the denial of Hashem’s existence; he who denies Hashem’s existence is an ingrate. One day he dismisses the favors his friend has performed for him, and the next day, he dismisses all the good that his Creator has done for him.”

In order to be a good Jew, one must be a good person. Man comes into this world alone and helpless. That dependency is meant to teach him a lesson. We are not alone; we are part of a group and we are all members of one large family. We have no hope of surviving on our own merit or resources. We need people’s favors; we need services other people provide in order to stay alive. Life is sustained by give and take. We have to be prepared to accept the assistance of our fellow men if we are to live a meaningful life.

Kol Yisroel areivim zeh lazeh, but friendship and brotherhood come with obligations. Sometimes you help your friend and sometimes you have to let your friend help you. You cannot live by yourself. Some people have a problem with that because they don’t want to be encumbered with a sense of obligation to anyone. Some would rather experience misery and loneliness than do anything that would produce a feeling of indebtedness to another person.

To be a gavrah rabba you have to be prepared to learn from anyone. As our nation was being formed, that lesson was rigorously instilled along with the imperative to appreciate all we have and all who helped us along the way.

As we enter the month of Yetzias Mitzrayim, let us pause and reflect on all we have to be grateful for. Let us thank and appreciate Hashem for the bounty of blessings he showers upon us daily. Let us thank and appreciate our friends for their friendship and all they have done for us. Let us show gratitude to our parents for investing so much effort in raising us and enabling us to become who we are today; our rabbeim for inspiring us and helping us discover the beauty of Torah learning and the Torah way of life; our teachers for all they taught us.

Let us thank and appreciate our spouses who help us in countless ways that we have come to take for granted especially before Yom Tov; our children, simply for being who they are. Let us not forget all our family members and loved ones.

And yes, let us appreciate and offer thanks for the many, many blessings we barely take note of…the house we live in, the ground we walk on, the air we breathe. Most of all, let us savor the very marvel of being able to walk, talk and breathe—the wonder of life itself.


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